TAMPA ― They find themselves in a week-long swoon, which sure beats the month-long ones.
For the first time all season, the Bulls men (12-5, 2-3) have lost two in a row, both excruciating in nature. They couldn’t buy a free throw last weekend at Temple (an 82-80 overtime loss), and suffered a first-half turnover epidemic Tuesday at Cincinnati (an 82-74 defeat).
“You don’t know when the breakthrough comes,” second-year coach Brian Gregory said Thursday, “but you’ve just got to keep...chopping the wood.”
Some day in that figurative forest, the tree is gonna fall, making a sound that resonates throughout the American Athletic Conference. In the meantime, Gregory’s club already has proven on a given night, it can chop down any foe in its highly improved league.
“We’re not the punchline anymore,” Gregory said, “But we need to do a little more punching.”
In a season already rife with tangible signs of improvement, the Bulls' competitiveness in league play might be the most profound one. If they upset No. 21 Houston at home Saturday night (8 p.m., ESPNU), they’ll be 3-3 in AAC play for the first time in the league’s six-year history.
“They’ve gone from not very good to really good in one year," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said.
The Bulls' three AAC defeats, against teams with a combined overall record of 41-12, have been by a total margin of 13 points. Their first three conference losses last season were by an average margin of 20.3.
And the sparkling individual stats compiled during a modest-non conference slate are holding up one-third of the way into league play. PG Laquincy Rideau leads the AAC in steals (4.6 per game), is tied for the lead in assists (5.8), and is seventh in scoring (17.8) in conference games. F Alexis Yetna is third in rebounding (9.2 per game).
“This league is really good, and I think we can compete with anybody, which is a big step for us,” Gregory said. “The first four years of our league’s existence, I think we won 11 (conference) games, so you’ve got to remember where we were at.”
Such reflections evoke grimacing.
Before the loss at Cincinnati, the Bulls' previous four defeats to the Bearcats had been by an average margin of 27.3 points. Another blowout seemed plausible Tuesday, when USF committed 15 first-half turnovers and trailed by 12 at the break. Yet the Bulls rallied to tie the score midway through the second half.
Similarly, they appeared poised to end their nine-game losing streak to Temple last Saturday, rallying from a 14-point halftime deficit, but eventually were doomed in part by a 40-percent effort (10-for-25) from the free-throw line.
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“I always say two of the greatest traits that a team can have is resiliency and grit,” Gregory said. “We’ve shown the grit part, now we need to make sure that we stay resilient and we keep getting after it every single day.”
Because they could be one chop from making real noise.
“You know, we weren’t very good in our first year," said Sampson, whose inaugural Cougars club went 13-19 (and 4-14 in the AAC) in 2014-15.
"That second year (when Houston went 22-10), we beat SMU at home; they were ranked in the top 12. We beat Cincinnati, we won at Connecticut. So we went from bad to good, and that’s what (the Bulls) have done. They’re good.”